Annual Buddhist Festival To Include Talks About Baltimore, Social Justice

06/10/2015 03:44 pm ET | Updated Jun 09, 2016


Buddhists and meditation enthusiasts will gather near Washington, DC this week for Buddhafest, an annual event that includes a film festival, dharma talks, meditation sessions and music. Organizers will open and close this year's festival with presentations by Buddhist leaders who have worked to bring peace to the city of Baltimore and cultural diversity to the religion.

On opening night, festival attendees will hear a discussion titled "Taking Our Practice Out into the World: Lessons from Baltimore." The discussion will feature New York Times bestselling author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg and the founders of the Holistic Life Foundation, a Baltimore-based yoga and mediation group formed in 2001 with a mission to improve living conditions in urban communities through practices involving applied mindfulness. The Foundation operates an after-school and workforce development program, but its leaders acknowledge there's more work to be done in the wake of recent tensions between Baltimore law enforcement and the African American community. Co-founder Andres Gonzales ruminates on his hope for a more peaceful Baltimore in a post on the Foundation's blog:

"At a time when many people would throw in the towel and give up on their city because it is burning we are optimistic... Baltimore isn't made up of quitters. It is made up of hard working, loving, and compassionate, charming people. And now the world has given us a platform to show the true side of Baltimore. Love is the strongest force in the universe and we will use it to show everyone that it is true what our benches say: Baltimore is the greatest city in America."

A closing-night discussion will invite attendees to consider how Martin Luther King's dream of beloved community is compatible with Buddhist teachings. Panelists will include the Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei, African American activist and author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace. Other panelists will include Eleanor Hancock of White Awake (an organization that seeks to increase racial awareness through the practice of mindfulness), as well as meditation leaders Femi Akinnagbe and Tara Brach.

Buddhafest started in 2010 when co-founders Eric Forbis and Gabriel Riera organized a gathering of meditation enthusiasts at American University in Washington, DC. "I really just wanted to offer one screening of a film about nuns in Tibet who went underground after the Chinese invasion, and how they returned to build nunneries after the war." Shocked and inspired that his first movie screening attracted a standing-room-only crowd, he decided to plan additional events with themes like mindfulness, compassion and peacemaking at their center.

Forbis says that he is aware of Western Buddhism's reputation for being individualistic, but is trying to change that perception by showing how engaged Buddhism is improving social, economic and environmental conditions. "I wanted to showcase Buddhists who are out making a difference and I think we're able to do this by focusing on how our spiritual practices impact the real world and make a practical difference in people's lives. We really want to make a difference in the world."

The event, scheduled this year to run from June 11 through June 14, is operated by 60 volunteers and led by Forbis. Talks presented and films screened over the weekend will be made available online by Tricycle Magazine for several weeks after the close of the festival.

Correction: An earlier version of this article did not identify Gabriel Riera as one of Buddhafest's founders. We regret any confusion that may have been caused by this omission.

Photo Credit - Pictured left to right, Ali Smith, Andres Gonzalez and Atman Smith,
Founders of the Holistic Life Foundation of Baltimore. Photo courtesy of; used by permission.